TESHUVAH AND REPARATIONS by Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, shomeret shalom
This piece is meant as a healing response to centuries of anti-blackness on Turtle Island. It does not address other injured communities, but that does not mean these principles and protocols cannot be applied to people suffering other forms of systemic violence including harms done to indigenous peoples, women, queer and trans people, Muslims, Jews and many others who are targeted by white supremacy and patriarchy. This is meant as a healing guide based on the protocols of teshuvah dedicated to reparations. Study this as a teshuvah text, a guide to action.
The 40 day period from the new moon of Elul through Yom Kippur is wholly devoted to Teshuvah. Teshuvah is a process of healing repair for ethical injury, unjust action and moral harm. Our ancestors believed our communities could not celebrate a new year (or any other festival) without first offering reparations marked by public apology and transfers of wealth to injured parties. This is the way Jewish tradition strives to enact honoring the dignity of every human being across all bars and borders.
To clarify the public and systemic nature of teshuvah, Jewish tradition links shofar blowing at the conclusion of Yom Kippur to the emancipation of the enslaved. As Rabbi Samuel Tamaras* wrote, “The shofar is surely the appropriate instrument for proclaiming the advent of the Jubilee Year on the Day of Atonement, for it is associated with the most exalted of biblical events: the giving of the torah (the protocols of the ‘beloved community’) and the day of emancipation of the enslaved. The shofar is an instrument whose very sound plants within the human heart a passion for truth and healing justice. “The lofty goal of teshuvah is none other than dismantling the infrastructures of enslavement and empire. That is why authentic teshuvah must go beyond symbolic acts and abolish the legal and governing practices that produce and perpetuate ongoing harm. Harms are defined as avoidable impairments of fundamental human needs which, makes it impossible or difficult for people to meet their needs or achieve their full potential.
Anti-blackness is an ongoing harm that demands teshuvah. Healing the harms of internalized, interpersonal and systemic forms of anti-blackness is clearly the spiritual challenge of this moment. We should not use the language of return to describe teshuvah in this instance, because equity never existed in the first place. We are building toward the world we want to see. The future is emergent and the open wounds are deep.
Teshuvah allows us to lament and acknowledge the transAtlantic slave trade and its legacy of ongoing harm. These harms negatively impact black lives within all public & private institutions in American life including health care, housing, land ownership, education, voting rights, policing, systems of justice from court to prison, transportation access, reproductive rights, distribution of resources, employment, banking, freedom of movement, cultural & historical representation and psychological well-being. Is not teshuvah required?
Teshuvah is structured to achieve healing and rehabilitation of both victims and perpetrators of systemic harm. Teshuvah envisions all of us moving forward together through enactment of the following five stages of repair:
awakening compassion (ha-karat ha-chet) for harm, and embracing self-healing
acknowledgment of the web of accountability and one’s place in it (kharata);
publicly naming harms as articulated by those directly impacted by harm (vidui);
reparations for harm which includes rehabilitation, compensation, and satisfaction (peiraon) by those harmed;
guarantees of non-repeat of the harm that include an agreed upon system of accountability by victims of harm (azivat ha-chet).
These steps are parallel to the reparation steps articulated by descendants of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In carrying out teshuvah dedicated to reparations, the following principles are critical to a successful outcome.
Reparations Teshuvah cannot be accomplished without placing the leadership, experiential knowledge and analysis of black people at the center of the reparations teshuvah process. Otherwise, harms are repeated in new forms.
Reparations teshuvah requires understanding the root causes of ongoing historical harms and the way privilege operates in this system. People of color are daily harmed by white supremacy and patriarchy and its vast infrastructural components, thus obligating teshuvah from people who draw privilege from their racial status as ‘white’.
Social inequities today are a function of the long history of racism and legalized discrimination in the past.
*Racism, white supremacy and patriarchy are endemic and normative and not exceptions to the norm.
* Harm is measured as avoidable impairment of fundamental human needs which, makes it impossible or difficult for people to meet their needs or achieve their full potential. The legacy of harm produced by the transAtlantic slave trade fits into this experiential framework.
*Reparations teshuvah is not a linear post-conflict framework. Rather it is local and national ongoing effort that builds upon the historical movement for reparations first initiated after the Civil War. Apology is not enough. It must be accompanied by restitution, rehabilitation and guarantees of non-repetition of harm.
*Reparations teshuvah represents the altering of power relationships and reimagining how to organize society. Reparations teshuvah is intersectional, creative, multi-faceted, diverse, works across multiple identities and is interdisciplinary.
The following pledge was formulated by members of The Truth Telling Project out of Ferguson. Taking this pledge on Yom Kippur seems a fitting act for the Jewish community and can guide our educational and activist pursuit of reparations teshuvah for the harms of anti-blackness.
I pledge to approach reparations as a healing journey.
I pledge to acknowledge and work to heal the legacies of moral and material harm that originated with the transatlantic slave trade and continues to manifest harm in Black communities.
I pledge to learn more about America’s history of racism and its foundation of chattel slavery.
I pledge to learn more about how structures and institutions built on slave labor continue to disenfranchise people in the African diaspora as well as devalue Black lives.
I pledge to act in ways that limit institutional complicity in violence against Black People. This may mean divesting from investments that harm Black People.
I pledge to be sensitive to the intersectionalities of the harms of racism.
I pledge to participate in reparations in my local community and encourage my networks to do the same, guided by the analysis and leadership of black led organizations and individuals.
I pledge to take this message to my family, friends and community with love rather than through guilt or shaming. I pledge to undo racism within my own family & faith based community according to the principles articulated in this pledge.
I affirm this pledge in my name: (recite your name)